A tale of two peaks

Posted: 3 February 2003

A survey of Kenya's Aberdare Mountains, in East Africa, has pin-pointed a huge number of illegal charcoal kilns which are being fed and fuelled by the highland forests upon which local people depend for medicine and water supplies. Our Nairobi Correspondent reports on this and the success claimed by the United Nations for efforts to work with local farmers to conserve the forests of Mount Kenya.

The aerial survey, conducted towards the end of 2002 by the UN Environment Programme (UNEP) and the Kenya Wildlfie Service (KWS), spotted well over 14,000 illegal kilns, some of which are the size of a small factory. They are located mainly in the south and west of the Aberdares.

It has long been known that charcoal production is one of the biggest threats to Kenya's forests and forests across much of Africa, if not thedeveloping world. But until now the sheer scale of the operations and the precise location of kilns has remained a mystery.

The findings, made with support from Rhino Ark and the Kenya Forests Working Group, highlight the need for improved conservation and enforcement in the Aberdares and also the chronic dependency of Kenya on wood as an energy source.

Charcoal exports

It is estimated that 80 per cent of Kenya's fuel comes from wood with only nine per cent of the population connected to electricity supplies.

The findings also highlight the risks to the environment of poorer countries from uncontrolled and insensitive trade in a globalised world.

Experts say a significant quantity of Kenya's charcoal is being exported out of Kenya to places such as the Middle East.

Klaus Toepfer, UNEP's Executive Director, said: "The plight of the Aberdare Mountains underlines some of the key issues we are facing across the developing world. Lack of access to reliable, modern, sustainable forms of energy; the exploitation of natural resources, such as timber and water,without adequately pricing the environmental and health costs and a scarcity of the manpower, equipment and cash needed to properly manage, protect and police such areas," he added.

"Behind all this is the ever-present spectre of poverty, poverty driving people to over-exploit the Earth's life-support systems because they haveno alternative. Poverty of the human spirit, among greedy individuals and groups, who are putting profit before their fellow citizens, profit before nature," said Mr Toepfer.

The importance of Kenya's forests for wildlife and people, is acute. Although they cover less than 2 per cent of the country's total land area, closed forests harbour a disproportionate amount of the country's biodiversity, with some 40 per cent of the mammals species, 30 per cent of the bird species and 35 per cent of the butterfly species found in such sites.

Mr. Toepfer said that Kenya also highlighted how a well-funded and dedicated conservation effort can reverse a declining environment for thebenefit of people and wildlife.

Mount Kenya, a World Heritage Site, has suffered years of illegal logging and charcoal production leading to erosion, damage to rivers and water supplies and loss of precious wildlife upon which local people depend for medicines and to attract revenues from tourism.

However, a new survey, again carried out by UNEP in collaboration with KWS, shows that over the past two to three years a new management team is beginning to dramatically reduce the decline.

Since 1999, logging of indigenous trees has fallen by over 90 per cent. For example, in illegal logging of camphor, a highly valuable hardwood, has declined by 94 per cent since 1999.

The number of illegal charcoal kilns has also rapidly declined, falling by 62 per cent. The area of illegal marijuana fields has fallen by 81 per cent.

Global support

UNEP, working with the International Fund for Agricultural Development and the Kenyan government, hopes to soon secure international support for an over $20 million project to further improve the Mount Kenya area and therivers flowing from the region.

The project will work closely with local people on issues including ones to help coffee farmers use water more wisely to initiatives to reduce soil erosion from roads.

Mr. Toepfer said: " We appear to have a tale of two peaks. One, the Aberdare range, where unsustainable development is likely to be pushing more and more people into the poverty trap and the other, Mount Kenya, where we may be finally starting down the road towards sustainable development".

For a different perspective on this story see: Farmers 'eat away' Kenya's mountain forests